EWU ROTC alumnus dies a war hero
Eastern Washington University Student Newsletter
If a man’s life is a chapter, retired Colonel James “Bo” Elliott found a way to write an entire book.
An alumnus of EWU after serving three tours in Vietnam and winner of a Silver Star, Elliott, 58, died from a heart attack, January 24, 2004.
He was diagnosed with an enlarged heart, both by his doctor and by his friends for the gracious way he always treated them.
The 1960s’ had a life-changing period on Elliott’s character, a native of Spokane.
He attended Gonzaga Prep and played varsity basketball, football and track, Elliott was voted student body president as a senior in 1964, said high school friend Jerry McGinn.
“He was a smart, engaging type of guy, a natural leader,” McGinn said. “He always drew people to him and would literally engage you.”
Tragically, Elliott’s father, Clifford, died in 1964, making Elliott the older man in his family, McGinn said.
“He stood out at Prep because there weren’t that many other blacks in the school,” McGinn said.
Elliott’s 1964 ASB opponent for president at Gonzaga Prep was Don Barbieri, currently running for Washington State’s fifth congressional seat.
Elliott helped build a positive perception of what a person was capable of, Barbieri said.
“I believe I can be a better congressman because of his help and inspiration,” Barbieri said.
Barbieri said that because 2004 is a reunion year for Gonzaga Prep, Elliott’s influence will be missed.
“We had a close circle of friends at Gonzaga Prep and he was one of them. He was an active, positive human being of high value he pushed each one of us,” Barbieri said. “Our reunion year will only get bigger because of him.”
Elliott moved to California in 1965, attending the University of San Francisco, where he would meet John Ilnicki.
“We were both cast into the same dorm room for two years, developing a relationship that would last the next 40,” Ilnicki said. “I had moved into the dorm room first and the hall monitor asked me if I had a problem sharing a room with a black guy from Spokane. It was probably the best decision of my life that I said ‘no.’”
Ilnicki said he left his dorm room that night to attend a movie with friends and came back to find Elliott in the shadows.
“He stood up, out of the dark and said, ‘call me Bo,’” Ilnicki said. “His family called him ‘James,’ but I knew him as nothing but ‘Bo.’”
Ilnicki said he shared many long nights with Elliott, working on the USF campus newspaper, “The Foghorn.”
“Bo was the sports editor and I was the night managing editor,” Ilnicki said. “We would both be sitting at our little desks, typing away, writing the newspaper.”
In 1966, Elliott found his calling in the USF ROTC program, Ilnicki said.
“I didn’t like the ROTC program, but Bo loved it,” Ilnicki said. “He went onto officer training school and we kept in contact constantly. Except for Vietnam, we spoke at least once a week for the rest of his life.”
Drafted in 1968, Elliott went to Vietnam, first slated as Artillery, but later as a helicopter pilot, earning one of his two Purple Hearts when a bullet shot through his left foot while his helicopter was heading nose-first into battle.
“The bullet went between his big toe and his second toe, right through his foot and seriously wounded his co-pilot,” Ilnicki said. “He was in the hospital for months, lucky to walk again.”
After returning for another tour in Vietnam, Elliott was later awarded the Silver Star for rescuing soldiers out of a killing field, Ilnicki said.
“He came out of Vietnam with a lot of 8mm film which he later transferred to video,” Ilnicki said. “It gave me a chance to see him flying around.”
Elliott left Vietnam in 1970, heading to Eastern Washington State College, earning a bachelor’s degree in Government in 1975 while a member of EWSC ROTC. While at EWSC, Elliott’s personality helped him as a dignitary tour guide for EXPO ’74.
“I could always call Bo because he read USA Today cover-to-cover and could tell me everything about everything,” Ilnicki said. “The guy could talk on any level, had the softest shoulder for anyone. I was amazed at his memorial to find so many people he had that affect on; I thought he was only there for me.”
Elliott was often courted to go to Washington, D.C., but requested duty around the Pacific Rim, Ilnicki said.
“He was a soldier’s soldier and refused to become a ‘horse-holder’ at the Pentagon,” Ilnicki said.“A ‘horse-holder’ is the guy holding the horse of a general, in order to get noticed by the upper ranks for promotion. Bo would never do it.”
“He wanted to go to the Gulf in 1991, but Colin Powell wouldn’t transfer him,” Ilnicki said.
As he was promoted through the ranks to Colonel, Elliott’s career led him to the distinction of marching the last troops out of The Presidio in San Francisco in 1994.
“I always expected to pin a General’s star on one of his shoulders with his mother pinning a star on the other, but it never happened,” Ilnicki said.
Throughout his 30-year career, Elliott was also awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, a Joint Service Command Medal, six Vietnam Service Medals, two Bronze Stars, three Legion of Merits, two Distinguished Flying Crosses and Three Meritorious Service Medals.
One of Elliott’s constant campaigns had nothing to do with the military, Ilnicki said.
“My wife Brenda had a little, one-zipper, purple purse, the size of an envelope that she brought to Hawaii while visiting Bo one time,” Ilnicki said. “The zipper broke, she threw it in the garbage, but Bo took it out and put it back in her luggage. When Brenda got home, she found the purple purse and saved it until the next time she saw it, when she hid it somewhere for him to find.”
Ilnicki said that the entire episode was only known between Elliott and Brenda.
“They kept this going for 27 years,” Ilnicki said. “She would hide it on him, then he would wait until the next time he saw her and hide on her.”
The purple purse found its way into Elliott’s military career, Ilnicki said.
“Bo was always embarrassed about wearing his dressed blues at ceremonies because he had more medals than some generals,” Ilnicki said. “While getting a promotion, he found Brenda’s purse hiding in his uniform.”
Having possession of the purse upon hearing of Elliott’s death, Brenda knew the perfect place for it to be, Ilnicki said. She put the purse in the casket with Elliott.
Elliott’s last assignment was near Washington, D.C. February 25, 2004. He became one of 280,000 in Arlington National Cemetery.
ELLIOTT, JAMES E
COL US ARMY
VETERAN SERVICE DATES: 10/03/1967 – 10/31/1997
DATE OF BIRTH: 11/21/1945
DATE OF DEATH: 01/24/2004
DATE OF INTERMENT: 02/25/2004
BURIED AT: SECTION 68 SITE 616
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard